Something to SNEEZE at
Tree pollen triggers allergies one month early
n early barrage of pollen from elm, juniper and cottonwood trees has exploded across Mesa County, overwhelming many allergy sufferers with the unpleasant fallout.
Patient waiting rooms filled up with people draining, dripping, coughing and sneezing from tree allergies about one month sooner than normal, a local allergist said.
“It’s almost a full month early because of the light winter,” said Dr. David Scott of Allergy and Asthma Center of Western Colorado. “The trees are really liking this temperate winter that we had, and so they’re putting out lots of pollen.”
Measured by number of grains per cubic meter of air, the tree pollen count was deemed “high” at 1,098 grains on March 19, the date of the most recent sample by Mesa County health officials.
By comparison, there were 15 grains of pollen per cubic meter of air for grass (moderate) and six for weeds (low), the county reported.
“Classically, juniper comes late because it’s a high-country, high-elevation plant, but we’re seeing extremely high juniper pollen levels, which is really unusual for this time of year,” Scott said. “Usually, this time of year, all we would have is elm.”
Unlike weed and grass pollen, tree pollen spikes at extremely high levels, he said. The high levels cause symptoms that can be “brutal” during the three weeks of peak release. Symptoms can be so painful, many sufferers are unable to leave their homes, he said.
In contrast, grass and weed pollens release at lower levels, causing milder symptoms, but for longer periods of two to three months, Scott said.
“April is usually our busiest month of the year in Grand Junction, but this year, March is as busy as April,” he said. “It’s like our busiest time has been shifted forward by a month.”
Grit, determination and a variety of treatments make it possible for all but the most sensitive to function despite the allergic reactions that cause their symptoms, Scott said.
Troy Ball, for example, a Grand Junction Regional Airport Authority board member, asked questions and proposed motions at the board’s meeting last week despite the discomfort caused in part by his tree pollen allergy.
Ball said his allergy symptoms can be quite severe. When he lived in Florida, he received five injections a day, three days a week, in order to function. Those treatments were discontinued after he moved away.
Now that he lives in Grand Junction, he suffers less, though smoke from agricultural burning can aggravate his condition like it did last week.
“I think with all the shots I took all those years and a good antihistamine when I need it, I’m able to get by,” Ball said. “The best advice I could give anyone is go see an allergist.”
Basically, there are three categories of treatment for allergies, Scott said. The first is “avoidance.” When it comes to tree pollen, that means staying indoors during the early morning hours and delaying recreational walks and jogging until after the evening meal.
“Showering to get it out of your hair before you go to bed also helps,” he said.
Medication is the next approach.
“While antihistamines are fairly effective for itch, water and sneeze, they don’t help as much for blockage and drainage that people get with more chronic allergy,” he said.
“If somebody’s using oral antihistamine, they definitely need to get the non-sedating version. The generics are just as effective as the brand names.”
Scott recommended cetirizine and fexofenadine, generic antihistamines that airline pilots are allowed to take when flying because they don’t cause sleepiness.
The third category of treatment is “de-sensitization,” which involves administering to patients the substance they are allergic to — called an allergen — in drops or small injections.
Over time, through slightly increasing doses, the body’s immune system develops a tolerance, he said.
“There’s a risk to this kind of treatment because if you give too large a dose, the people you’re giving it to can experience anaphylactic shock,” a life-threatening condition that can cause airways to shut down.
Of course, every precaution is taken to prevent anaphylaxis from developing and to treat it if it does, he said.
Nobody is born with allergies, Scott said. A combination of several factors must come together for one to develop allergies.
First, the person must have a genetic predisposition. About 30 percent of the population has a predisposition to allergies, he said.
Next, the person must be exposed to the allergen on a repeated basis, Scott said.
“Eventually, the immune cells will process that allergen and make a decision to fight it or tolerate it,” Scott said. “It seems to be a little bit random as to which way the immune system goes.”
This explains why some people without allergies may develop them after moving from one location, where the allergen is not present, to another, where it is.
Similarly, it explains why people who are not allergic to the pets of others can develop an allergy after they acquire an animal of their own.
The allergy develops from repeated exposure over a period of time, he said.